When we look back at the history of global development 2015 will unquestionably be remembered as a significant turning point. It was a year during which both the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement were established, signalling collective global intent to bend the curve of rising emissions and reverse the growing inequalities that had come to define many of our societies. It was a year of renewed multilateralism. It was a year of hope, and of ambition.
While history will look back favourably on 2015, we have fallen short of delivering against its promises in the years that have followed. The climate and sustainable development challenges have never been more acute. Close to 800 million people still live in darkness and without reliable energy, carbon emission have risen to record levels for three of the last four years and COVID-19 has exposed the fragilities of an unsustainable and vulnerable global economy.
If ever there was a need for significant adjustment in our trajectory, it is now.
We can address many of our immediate and medium- to long-term challenges by prioritising energy system transformation. Energy has powered growth and enabled prosperity for decades, but as we tackle unique challenges our energy system must evolve. A renewables-driven transformation is both an indispensable part of sustainable growth, and catalyst for an immediate and robust economic recovery.
Wind, solar and geothermal energy, complemented by green hydrogen and modern bioenergy can also move the world towards climate stability and greater resource security. The Eleventh IRENA Assembly and the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week will further reinforce these benefits, and encourage states, cities and corporations to exploit them, immediately.
Examples from around the world and right here in the United Arab Emirates are evidence that renewable energy solutions are routinely out-competing fossil fuels on costs and are deployable at large scale. In April last year, Abu Dhabi secured 2 gigawatts of solar energy for a record 1.35 cents per kilowatt hour. Solar and wind are leading us towards an era of the cheapest electricity in history.
Renewables are now actively displacing both new and existing coal power. IRENA estimates that by the end of this year, up to 1,200 gigawatts of existing coal-fired capacity will cost more to operate than new utility-scale solar photovoltaic will cost to install.
These market developments are nothing short of revolutionary. Around 35 per cent of today’s global electricity supply is renewable and the total absolute generation capacity has doubled in a decade, but there is still work to be done. By 2030, this share needs to increase to just under 60 per cent and rise again to 90 per cent by mid-century to meet global goals.
It is possible, but we have entered crucial year. Between the now and COP26 in November, it is critical that national governments fully account for renewables’ potential in climate commitments and align climate goals with concrete energy plans and investments.
The global pandemic has put many things in perspective, not least the resilience of renewables. As the economic downturn ravaged the oil markets and low electricity demand reduced fossil fuel-based generation, renewables displayed remarkable resilience. In the European Union and United Kingdom, for instance, coal-based power generation fell by over a quarter in the first three months of 2020, compared to 2019, because of falling demand due to COVID-19. In contrast, renewable energy reached a 43 percent share of the electricity mix.
These opportunities are increasingly being reflected in country-level climate ambition. Canada, the United Kingdom and Korea are just a few examples of countries targeting net-zero economies in by mid-century bolstered by renewable energy. The UAE too has recently updated its nationally determined contribution, aiming for a 23.5 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030 underpinned by clean, and renewable energy, energy efficiency and emerging clean technologies.
Yet this unparalleled moment of need calls for an unprecedented response. The evidence shows transforming the global energy system stands to offer significant socioeconomic benefits, from job creation and GDP growth, to improved food and water security. It is a fundamental element of the sustainable development agenda and a prerequisite for the achievement of almost all its goals – including climate safety.
If we are to offer future generations anything like the opportunities afforded to us, we must mainstream sustainability into everything we do. 2015 was indeed a year of great hope. To transform that hope into reality, 2021 must be the year we left the age inequity behind us.
By Francesco La Camera, Director-General of IRENA